What makes a great high school? Many people think they know, and it usually boils down to numbers: average SAT scores, percentage of kids taking Advanced Placement classes, the number of students who get into Ivy League colleges. These numbers are important, but they don't tell the whole story. They can't tell us which school has an amazing principal, or a great drama program, or a way of encouraging minority, immigrant or low-income kids in need of extra help. They can't tell us which high schools extend a warm welcome to learning-disabled kids, or academic underachievers, or teenagers who have made bad choices and are in desperate need of a second chance.
So last September we asked readers which local high schools had impressed them and why. More than 300 people responded to The Washington Post Magazine's Back Fence Survey, nominating high schools and explaining what made them worthy of praise. Those who weighed in included parents, teachers, principals, students, alumni and community leaders. This wasn't a scientific survey and didn't pretend to be. But it highlighted some interesting high schools that we hadn't heard much about before, along with others that we had.
Teacher Maria Johnson helps seniors Selan Alemu, left, and Crystal St. Bernard.
In addition to the Back Fence responses, we talked to education experts, visited schools and examined the numbers. Then we compiled a list of 30 exceptional public and private high schools from across the region. It's by no means comprehensive. There are undoubtedly lots of terrific schools that aren't mentioned here. But this list offers a glimpse of what some public and private high schools are doing right in the eyes of those who know the most about them.
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, Prince George's County: 2,869 students (26.6 percent white, 57.4 percent black, 4.3 percent Hispanic, 11.5 percent Asian, 21 percent low-income); average SAT 1061; 83.3 percent pass state English test, 57 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 1.289; 63 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 90 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
This very large school educates its students in an austere, prisonlike building with a bus fleet large enough to serve a small city. But it also has a big advantage. About one-third of its students have been selected based on grades and test scores for its science and technology magnet program.
In other words, it has more than its share of bright and ambitious students. Yet what parents and teachers gush over is not the many awards it has won or the number of AP classes it offers or the Ivy League admissions it boasts, but something more metaphysical. Eleanor Roosevelt has an extraordinary spirit, the Back Fence boosters say, stemming from the fact that 57 percent of its students are African American, that the nonmagnet students get as much encouragement as the science and tech whizzes, that klutzes are welcome on athletic teams and that the staff treats parents like partners rather than like dangerous intruders.
Udomah C. Ohiri says that when his daughter's grades slipped badly her freshman year and he sought help from her guidance counselor, within 24 hours all of the girl's teachers were assembled for a before-school meeting. "Life changed thereafter," Ohiri reports. Now a sophomore, the daughter "does all her school work without being reminded."
"I love the fact that we carpool with an Asian, an Indian and a Jewish-Caucasian boy," says parent Tina McGuffey, who describes her family as white evangelical Christian. Accustomed to her son's fine grades in middle school, she was stunned when Eleanor Roosevelt refused to let him take geometry in ninth grade. Despite his A in eighth-grade algebra, he had failed the school's algebra assessment test, which was not multiple choice and did not allow calculators. He took algebra again, the Eleanor Roosevelt way.
The school has an effective principal, Sylvester Conyers, and several legendary teachers, including Latin instructor Linda Squier and social studies teacher Kenneth Bernstein. Band director Sally Wagner and choral director Barbara Baker have created a 750-student musical juggernaut with so many ensembles and bands that one can barely keep count.
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H-B WOODLAWN SECONDARY PROGRAM, Arlington County: 322 students (67 percent white, 6.2 percent black, 19.3 percent Hispanic, 7.5 percent Asian, 15 percent low-income); average SAT 1206; 98.7 percent pass state English test, 98.6 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 5.747; 78 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 84 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
Here is one of the last bastions of the 1970s movement to create alternative educations to free American youth from the petty rules and hierarchies of the standard suburban high school. Students and teachers govern the school at weekly town meetings. Teachers are called by their first names. There are no bells or tardies or other annoyances.
Many of the other surviving alternative schools reject or soft-pedal standard measures of academic achievement, such as AP tests. But H-B embraces them, with an AP participation rate that was second highest among public schools in the region last year, even without a few H-B students who protested the AP pressure by sleeping through the exam because AP scores don't count on final grades.
The four high school grades have only 322 students, creating a cozy atmosphere that students -- picked by lottery -- and their parents love. "The physical plant looks like a cross between a bomb shelter and a prison," says parent Ann Tutundjian, "but kids are made to feel welcome there every day because it is their school."
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MAURICE J. MCDONOUGH HIGH SCHOOL, Charles County: 1,388 students (55.3 percent white, 38.3 percent black, 3 percent Hispanic, 2.6 percent Asian, 12.3 percent low-income); average SAT 1070; 73.1 percent pass state English test, 35.6 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 1.496; 56 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 41 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
Like many schools in rapidly growing Charles County, McDonough is overcrowded, with trailer classrooms added. But parents and teachers say that Principal Garth Bowling has handled the growth well and that the academic program has improved rapidly, with five times as many AP tests given in 2004 as there were five years before.
The most glowing raves are for the music program and choral director Teresa Mazzeo. Some of the singing ensembles, such as the madrigal group, are so good they are often mistaken for a college or professional choir. Mazzeo "has been one of the most influential people in my teenage life because she has taught me to love and share music," says Austin Rick, a recent graduate.
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MONTGOMERY BLAIR HIGH SCHOOL, Montgomery County: 3,236 students (27.4 percent white, 32.2 percent black, 25.1 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Asian, 21.3 percent low-income); average SAT 1148; 64.5 percent pass state English test, 42.1 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 2.488; 86 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 59 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
This gigantic, ethnically diverse school gets its national reputation from its two magnet programs: science, math and computer science, which produced four Intel Science Talent Search finalists this year, and communications arts, which puts out what is probably the region's best high school newspaper.
But most Blair students are not in the magnets, and it is the way they are treated and what they learn that impress the school's boosters. The regular students are urged to take AP courses and graduate from the school "understanding the complexities of dealing with divergent attitudes, different races, religions and cultures," says parent Emily van Loon.
Blair has one of the area's most accomplished principals, Phillip Gainous, a splendid new building and many other attractions. "Nearly anything a student might ever want -- a cappella singing, sports, step teams, dancing, you name it -- is at Blair," says junior Samir Paul, "and if it isn't, it's very easy to start up a club or find a following."
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PATUXENT HIGH SCHOOL, Calvert County: 1,500 students (73 percent white, 14 percent black, 1.5 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, 10 percent low-income); average SAT 1053; 76 percent pass state English test, 53 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 1.275; 44 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 27 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
This school has the highest AP test participation rate in Calvert County, despite having slightly more low-income students than the county's other two schools with a senior class. But it is the community spirit that seems to energize the parents and faculty.
It was a big event when Patuxent opened in 1995, and it quickly became the center of the community in southern Calvert. Even residents who didn't have children at the school "supported the athletic teams, attended the choral concerts, supported the award-winning marching band and attended the outstanding theater performances," says Anita Shepherd, chair of Patuxent's social studies department.
Attachment to the school was so strong that when the county opened a fourth high school, Huntingtown, this year, and tried to shift some Patuxent students to Calvert High School, many Patuxent families rebelled. The school board relented and let 75 students stay at Patuxent, while telling them there would be no bus transportation. The families said they would get their children there.
"I fought hard to keep my students in this school," reports Michelle Klares, who has two children at Patuxent, because it had done so well by them and their classmates.
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THOMAS JEFFERSON HIGH SCHOOL FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, Fairfax County: 1,670 students (61.4 percent white, 1.4 percent black, 2.4 percent Hispanic, 30.4 percent Asian, 1.1 percent low-income); average SAT 1482; 100 percent pass state English and math tests; Challenge Index rating 7.142; 81 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 97.8 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
Like Microsoft and "American Idol," TJ gets picked on for being famous and successful, but many people argue it is the best high school in America. And the 1,600-student magnet school is expanding its enrollment to 2,000 because so many Northern Virginia students -- five applicants for every opening -- want to go there.
Although there is grumbling about a new admissions process that will give low-income and minority candidates a boost, and will deemphasize grades and test scores, TJ's average SAT score will still be in the mid-range for admission to Harvard.
Of course, the students and parents know that, which is sometimes off-putting. Former Fairfax County superintendent Daniel Domenech had to do two nationwide searches for a new principal in 2000 before the Jefferson community was satisfied. "They wanted God," he says. And although Elizabeth Lodal, the charming administrator Domenech persuaded to take the job, has done well, she is being needled by parents and students about the school's failure to produce a single semifinalist in this year's Intel Science Talent Search.
Back Fencers praise TJ's teachers for emphasizing character in a place filled with intellect. "Basically they tell their students: 'Yeah, sure, you're smart, maybe even brilliant. But that does not make you special or better than anyone else. The only thing that truly matters is what kind of person you are,'" says parent Sheri Brown.
Marissa Cole, Class of '95, adds that TJ is an academic oasis for "teeny-bopper nerds" who often feel like outcasts. "Suddenly, we're not alone." One parent remembers how reluctant her son was to play on his middle school chess team because he got teased for it. "That doesn't happen at TJ," she says.
WALKERSVILLE HIGH SCHOOL, Frederick County: 1,278 students (90.4 percent white, 5.3 percent black, 2.4 percent Hispanic, 1.7 percent Asian, 8 percent low-income); average SAT 1100; 74.3 percent pass state English test, 52.8 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 1.378; 70 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 44 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
This school has a modern-brick look, and yet to its Back Fence supporters, it feels like a throwback to the days when Frederick County was more farmland than suburb.
The school production of "A Christmas Carol" had more than 100 participants from the community and sold out two performances. When the girls' basketball team played in Baltimore County for the state championship, both sides of the court were packed with WHS fans in blue and gold. The school sponsors a holiday shop for horticultural products in the winter, a pork butchering in the spring and year-round farming activities.
Walkersville's academic side is also strong, with an AP test participation rate in the top 3 percent nationally, four times better than it was in 1997. Many of the faculty have children in the school, happy with the combination of high-level learning and old-time fun.
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WASHINGTON-LEE HIGH SCHOOL, Arlington County: 1,587 students (39.3 percent white, 13.5 percent black, 32.9 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian, 31.8 percent low-income); average SAT 1092; 90.5 percent pass state English test, 86.6 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 3.491; 76.8 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 64 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
All four Arlington high schools received enthusiastic reviews, but Washington-Lee boosters seemed to be particularly pleased because they have one of the few schools in this area able to maintain significant programs in both Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, the premier college-level courses and tests for high schools. This puts them on the same challenging academic plane as their more affluent and sometimes envied neighbors to the north who attend Yorktown High School.
W-L went through several principals after losing the legendary Bill Sharbaugh to retirement. But now it has Gregg Robertson, a 42-year-old dynamo who pleases many Back Fencers. Parents note with approval that they can't meet with him at lunch because he spends that time with students.
Lynn Dorfman, president of the PTA, says students are so comfortable with Robertson that they replaced his treasured Virginia Tech Hokies clock in his office with a Virginia Cavaliers clock, knowing he would enjoy the prank. "He knows where he's going, and the atmosphere in the building tells you his teachers and staff want to follow him there," Dorfman says.
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WESTFIELD HIGH SCHOOL, Fairfax County: 2,839 students (64.1 percent white, 8.2 percent black, 8.5 percent Hispanic, 16.4 percent Asian, 10.4 percent low-income); average SAT 1069; 95 percent pass state English test, 78 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 2.583; 65 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 69.8 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
Brand-new schools in good districts often have an advantage because the principal can select exactly the teachers he wants for every classroom. Westfield parents say Dale Rumberger did just that, and then went off to have the fun of starting another school, leaving the humming machine of Westfield to his top assistant, Mike Campbell.
In its fifth year, the campus has the very high AP participation that is standard of Fairfax County high schools, but it also has a recent state football championship and a reputation among parents for making families' lives easier.
Debbie Arnsperger wondered if her son, who has multiple disabilities, would really be treated well on the cross-country and track teams of such an athletically competitive campus. At one of his first meets, she stood back and watched carefully. "Even though my son would talk nonstop, and ask the same questions over and over again, and get in other team members' spaces, the reaction was always the same," she reports. "The kids genuinely accepted him, answered his questions and kindly reminded him what he should be doing."
When Kathy Sposa's son was injured, his entire team sent cards to the hospital, and the coaches came to his home and sat with him all afternoon as he was recovering from reconstructive surgery. When deadlines got close on his college applications, his counselor collected all his recommendations and personally drove the envelopes to the post office to make certain they were postmarked on time.
Westfield has an award-winning school newspaper, a versatile music program that encourages band members to play with the string orchestra, a guitar club with more than 100 members and an assistant principal, Tim Thomas, who, according to parent Carey Williams, "sees potential in kids whom others have already given up on."
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W.T. WOODSON HIGH SCHOOL, Fairfax County: 2,018 students (69 percent white, 4 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Asian, 3.7 percent low-income); average SAT 1159; 98 percent pass state English test, 89 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 3.748; 65.5 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 79 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
Back Fence fans of this school acknowledge that the 42-year-old facilities are long past their prime. But the renovators will get to them eventually, and, in the meantime, Woodson has one of the strongest faculties and one of the most communicative administrations anywhere.
"I can't tell you how many times I have made impromptu visits to the school and had access to almost everyone I needed to see, or, if not, an appointment for later in the day," says parent Vanette McKinney.
The principal, Robert Elliott, was tested severely when he arrived in 1999 in the middle of a pitched battle between pro-AP parents and teachers and an equally devoted group of families and educators who preferred the new IB program. The outgoing principal had failed to make clear that if the school took IB, AP would have to go. Elliott called a series of meetings, created a committee with advocates of both programs, and eventually worked out a return to AP.
As a consequence, Woodson's AP participation rate is No. 23 among 25,000 U.S. public schools, and everybody loves the creaky old place. "Woodson may be physically falling apart," says parent Catherine Potter, "but it has more heart than any school I have had the pleasure to be associated with."
BISHOP O'CONNELL HIGH SCHOOL, Arlington: 1,429 students (62 percent white, 6 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian); tuition $6,900 to $9,970; average SAT 1128; Challenge Index rating 2.105; 58 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 94 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
For many students and parents in Northern Virginia, this school provides a vibrant center of academic achievement, social service and fun. Its AP test participation rate matches that of some of the best public schools in the country, and its community activities -- such as the annual 12-hour SuperDance to raise money to fight cystic fibrosis -- are warmly embraced by students and parents.
Timothy R. Esterheld says he is looking forward to his fifth reunion, part of a very active alumni program. "The school presses for excellence with great teachers who push the students who are having a difficult time, making them understand the material better," he says.
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DEMATHA CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL, Hyattsville: 1,016 students; tuition $7,500; declined to provide other information.
This boys' school is renowned for its successful athletic programs, but it also boasts one of the region's most literary principals, Daniel McMahon, who teaches a literature course and writes reviews for The Post's Book World section.
That combination of athletics and aesthetics came up in many e-mails from DeMatha admirers. "Although DeMatha is well known for its athletic programs, its real emphasis is on academics," says parent Claire Goebeler. "My son usually has three or four hours of homework per night, and he works hard over the weekends as well. He is tested frequently, writes and reads a good amount for his courses also, and is well challenged."
Parent Gillian Carty-Roper says she likes the whole package: "the variety of courses offered, the teachers' skills, the administration's responsiveness to parent concerns, the Christian service component to the education of young men and the preparation of each student to be productive members of our society."
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ELIZABETH SETON HIGH SCHOOL Bladensburg: 550 students (35 percent white, 51 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian); tuition $7,200; average SAT 1055; Challenge Index rating 1.000; 70 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 90 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
This girls' school appears to have had the kind of success that many Catholic schools strive for, combining academics, athletics and the arts, while keeping tuition low enough to attract families that cannot afford the $20,000-a-year price tag of the area's best-known private schools.
Candy Cage, who graduated from Seton in 1981 and coaches women's basketball at Loyola College in Baltimore, says, "I have recruited several student athletes from Seton, and they have always been very well prepared for college and life." It is important, she says, that it is one of the last all-girls schools in the area, and instills values that "stress community service and reaching out to those less fortunate in our country."
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THE FIELD SCHOOL, Washington: 296 students in seventh through 12th grades; tuition $23,250; declined to provide other information.
The school on Foxhall Road NW is tiny but has a lovely campus and many admirers. One parent complimented its "very small classes, bright teachers, students who are for the most part bright and artistic, but not too much of a 'purple hair' place. I know something about Washington-area private schools, and, of all of them, Field is the least snobbish and cliquey, which to me is important."
Judy James, a 1982 graduate who has kept in touch, says the school "does a great job teaching children with learning disabilities as well as those without."
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GEORGETOWN DAY SCHOOL, Washington: 450 students; tuition $23,475; declined to provide other information.
GDS is always mentioned among the most sparkling of the Northwest Washington independent schools, even if it doesn't place quite as many graduates at Harvard as some others. It is a school where traditions seem to be felt more deeply than at other places, and parents express unusual enthusiasm for its openness to all kinds of students and teachers.
Barbara Atkin, whose son graduated in 2000, says GDS "has a long tradition of being welcoming to minority students," and, in fact, was established largely to provide an integrated private education in what was then a very segregated city. It cooperates with city public schools on several ventures, and has a public policy debate team led by volunteer coach Jim Gentile. Joel Kanter, a McLean resident who sends three children to the school, says: "Real magic transpires in the classroom. The result is kids that not only do learn, but want to. It results in kids that know how to think and collaborate in doing so."
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GONZAGA COLLEGE HIGH SCHOOL, Washington: 890 students; tuition $11,500; declined to provide other information.
Back Fence conversations about this Catholic boys' school focus on the influence of the Jesuits, on its unusual emphasis on public service and on how it makes room for low-income, inner-city students. Gonzaga provides more than $1 million a year in tuition assistance and helped create a middle school, the Washington Jesuit Academy, that is pioneering ways to prepare disadvantaged children for the challenge of a tough college prep high school.
"Students learn they have a responsibility to others less fortunate," says parent Kirk Willison. "There is a homeless shelter right on campus where students feed the needy. Students spend weeks in the summer helping the underprivileged in places as near as Emmitsburg, Md., and as far away as the Dominican Republic."
Timothy Ebner, a 2004 Gonzaga graduate, praises the "entirely new school facilities, including computer labs, state-of-the-art science labs and a collegiate-like urban campus."
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THE NEW SCHOOL OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, Fairfax: 100 students (80 percent white, 5 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic); tuition $19,000; SAT 25th to 75th percentile 950 to 1200; Challenge Index rating 1.636; 60 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; nearly 100 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
Many private school educators talk about freeing their students from the tyranny of memorization and multiple-choice exams. Back Fencers say the New School actually does it.
With only 100 students, it is one of the smallest high schools in the region, but parents say that means it can make learning a very individual experience. Grading is done mostly through exhibitions, projects and essays. Its AP test participation rate puts it among the top 3 percent of schools in the country, but parents enthuse over quarterly electives that are nothing like the broad-gauged AP classes. Where else can you find courses on Vietnamese history, American literature from 1810 to 1875, or the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist?
In that environment, says parent Joan Bardee, "the students themselves welcome all different types of kids." Susan Mink, another parent, says the school helps students like her child, who had trouble socially at larger and more impersonal schools.
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THE POTOMAC SCHOOL, McLean: 300 students; tuition more than $22,000; declined to provide other information.
The independent school's campus on a hill just off Chain Bridge Road is one of the prettiest in the area, as befits an expensive school with many affluent, well-connected parents. Some families like it because it seems less liberal than the well-known private schools along Wisconsin Avenue. Former independent counsel Kenneth Starr's daughter is a recent graduate, and students who speak favorably of President Bush might be less likely to be hazed than at, say, Sidwell Friends.
But Potomac's admirers don't emphasize the politics as much as the small-school charms. The school provides "lots of opportunities for kids to find what they are genuinely good at, and with less competition by the fact of fewer students," says Kathleen Nawaz, who has two daughters at Potomac.
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ST. ANSELM'S ABBEY SCHOOL, Washington: 253 students; tuition $16,250 to $16,750; average SAT 1380; Challenge Index rating 7.382; 68 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; nearly 100 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
The quiet little campus for boys looks like it is from a bygone era, but it is light-years ahead in the modern movement to make high school a challenging experience for all students.
St. Anselm's AP test participation rate was much higher than any other private school in the area that provided data, higher even than public supermagnet Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax County.
Father Peter Weigand, the headmaster, appears to enjoy contradicting the usual high-performing private school attitude toward AP as a necessary evil, and sees St. Anselm's academic standards as part of the 1,500-year-old Benedictine tradition. "The gentle but inquisitive spirit of the monks pervades the educational process," says Frank Henneburg, whose son is a freshman. "The boys are asked to study very hard but always with the message that their knowledge will contribute to the betterment of society."
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STONE RIDGE SCHOOL OF THE SACRED HEART, Bethesda: 342 students; tuition $18,355; declined to provide other information.
Those who speak well of Stone Ridge emphasize the advantages of a school that has uniforms and admits only girls. Andrea Muñiz, who graduated 11 years ago, says: High school "is typically a self-conscious age. Those factors help minimize insecurities, allowing you to focus on academics and having a good time with your friends."
The campus on Rockville Pike is lovely and pastoral, but it is the classes, and the emphasis on writing and thoughtful work, that impressed Anna Tiedeman, another alumna. She is studying for a master's degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and she credits Stone Ridge for "my intellectual curiosity and my dedication to the pursuit of academic excellence."
SCHOOLS THAT SUPPORT MINORITIES AND STUDENTS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
ANNANDALE HIGH SCHOOL, Fairfax County: 2,455 students (34.6 percent white, 15.6 percent black, 26.1 percent Hispanic, 21.6 percent Asian, 37 percent low-income); average SAT 1019; 93 percent pass state English test, 64 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 1.540; 72 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 55.2 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
This is one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the country, with a team of administrators and teachers who have worked for years to provide the kind of academic challenge they think all students deserve. Seven years ago, the school was in the doldrums, with an AP participation rate below the national average. Last year it was one of the most successful IB schools in the country, ranking in the top 3 percent of schools as measured by college-level test participation.
In an article recently published in Educational Leadership magazine, Eileen Gale Kugler, a school diversity expert and former Annandale parent, and Erin McVadon Albright, the school's IB coordinator, described how Annandale increased minority participation in college-level courses. One African American student quoted in the article thanked the school for "not letting her easily drop pre-IB and IB classes but giving her support and talking to her parents."
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BANNEKER ACADEMIC HIGH SCHOOL, Washington: 412 students (3 percent white, 91 percent black, 3 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, 27 percent low-income); average SAT 1074; 92.6 percent pass District English test, 94.5 percent pass District math test; Challenge Index rating 3.432; 76 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 99 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
This D.C. magnet school survived early years when some school board members thought it was elitist and wrong to allow a public school to select from the most academically ambitious students in the city. Banneker has only 400 students -- almost all African American -- and sits in an old building across the street from Howard University, far from many of its students' homes. But it has won academic contests and attracted some of the city's best teachers.
Principal Patricia Tucker and several faculty members added an IB program to Banneker's already successful AP program, making it one of the area's highest-performing schools.
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GW COMMUNITY SCHOOL, Springfield: 56 students; tuition $18,800; average SAT 1200; Challenge Index rating 1.111; 70 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 85 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
This tiny private school is not well-known, but it has many boosters among experts. "I have sent some families there," says special education consultant Pam Broome. "The parents loved it, and the students have been successful there."
Director Alexa Warden notes that "we do not consider ourselves a school for students with special education needs." But parents say its innovative curriculum, including long-term projects and community service, enriches young lives, engaging students who are both academically gifted and have learning disabilities. Jon Schaffer says of his son's experience, GW "has a very nurturing environment that has allowed him, and others like him,to flourish."
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LAB SCHOOL OF WASHINGTON, Washington: 140 students; tuition $24,000 to $25,000; declined to provide other information.
Founded in 1967, this private school on Reservoir Road NW has earned the praise of parents and experts. The founder and director, American University professor Sally L. Smith, designed a program based on active forms of learning for special ed students. "The LSW teaches through the arts," says parent Colleen Danos. "It's heaven! And it's working so beautifully for our son."
Special education consultant Pam Broome says parents throughout the area say to themselves, "If I could just get my kid into the Lab School." The problem is that there is not enough space for all who want to be there.
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THE NORA SCHOOL, Silver Spring: 60 students (65 percent white, 25 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic); tuition $16,850; SAT range 860 to 1470; 85 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 90 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
When one of Washington's most selective private high schools tried and failed to use threats to get Sylvia Royce's daughter to do her school work, Royce moved her to the small and little-known Nora School. It specializes in helping students who hit the brick wall of adolescence too hard and discover that the achievement-oriented administrators in their old schools don't know how to nurse them back to health.
Although Royce's daughter "continued to have some problems, Nora was able to roll with the punches," Royce says. "Nora seemed to have a real knack for sensing when to push on something and when to let it go." Her daughter made friends, got better and is now at a state university, thinking about law school.
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SPRINGBROOK HIGH SCHOOL, Silver Spring: 2,001 students (17 percent white, 44 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Asian, 21 percent low-income); average SAT 1047; 60.1 percent pass state English test, 36.7 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 2.391; 80 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 55 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
This very large school has one of the most experienced and respected principals in the region, Michael A. Durso, as well as a racially mixed student body that has embraced AP and IB college-level course programs. It gave more than 1,000 AP and IB tests last year, and many of the academic and student leaders are African American, Hispanic or other minorities.
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THURGOOD MARSHALL ACADEMY PUBLIC CHARTER HIGH SCHOOL, Washington: 226 students (100 percent black, 71 percent low-income); average SAT 795; 22 percent pass District English test, 42.4 percent pass District math test; no AP tests in 2004; 53 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; a projected 100 percent of this year's first graduating class will go to a four-year college.
The charter school was founded by several attorneys and law professors who have tapped into the area's considerable legal talent. The school focuses on law and politics, and invests a great deal of time in preparing low-income students for college. It uses a longer day, a longer week and a longer year, along with intensive after-school tutoring. There is an emphasis on critical thinking and public speaking.
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T.C. WILLIAMS HIGH SCHOOL, Alexandria: 2,029 students (26 percent white, 42.3 percent black, 24.3 percent Hispanic, 6.9 percent Asian, 40 percent low-income); average SAT 957; 88 percent pass state English test, 74 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 0.949; 77 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 49 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
Rarely do the races mix as well as they do at T.C. Its dramatic birth as a multiethnic school that rejected the assumptions of segregation made a great film, "Remember the Titans." But the real story is even more interesting: Education-conscious parents, white and black, and a team of very talented educators agreed that they could produce a high-performing school for everyone and prevent an exodus to private schools or other districts.
More T.C. students are in AP courses this year than ever before. A brand-new building with all the modern wireless conveniences will rise soon next to the old building on King Street. The most difficult challenge is finding a replacement for John Porter, the wizard principal who was key to the school's winning formula and who has been promoted to assistant superintendent of public affairs for the Alexandria school district.
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WAKEFIELD HIGH SCHOOL, Arlington: 1,442 students (16.6 percent white, 26.9 percent black, 46.2 percent Hispanic, 10.1 percent Asian, 49.6 percent low-income); average SAT 971; 92 percent pass state English test, 61.4 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 2.090; 76.5 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 45 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
The building looks old and a bit threadbare on its hill overlooking Route 7, but it has one of the most aggressive and successful programs in the area for engaging low-income minority students and getting them ready for college.
The previous principal, Marie Shiels-Djouadi, and several energetic teachers built a ninth-grade academy that looked for underachieving students and prepared them for the most challenging courses. The current principal, Doris Jackson, has deepened that tradition with the Advanced Placement Network, a plan to have every student take at least one AP course, with extra help and a summer program, and with the Cohort, small groups of boys in each grade who meet regularly to discuss how to survive in the difficult courses they have been coaxed into taking.
Wakefield has one of the highest AP participation rates in the country, particularly for a school where half of the students are poor enough to qualify for federal meal subsidies. It is also the only public school in the region that requires all seniors to complete a special project.
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WALTER JOHNSON HIGH SCHOOL, Bethesda: 1,989 students (65.1 percent white, 9.8 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic, 12.9 percent Asian, 5 percent low-income, 13 percent special education); average SAT 1177; 83.3 percent pass state English test, 73.8 percent pass state math test; Challenge Index rating 2.951; 84 percent of teachers have master's or PhD; 75 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges.
The Academic Support Center, part of this large, high-performing high school, is well regarded among Montgomery County parents of children with learning disabilities. It has class sizes of 10 to 15 students, and sometimes smaller. The curriculum is designed both for students who want a full diploma and to attend college, and for those who want a certificate of completion so they can look for a job.
Meg Robinson, whose son is working for a diploma, says the most impressive factor is the dedication of the center's staff. "I am constantly e-mailing teachers about assignments, tests, behavior and anything else that requires my attention. The teachers stay in touch with me, sometimes on a daily basis, so that we are able to work as a team when issues or concerns come up," she says. The students are also made to feel a part of the larger school, with Robinson's son welcomed on the cross-country team.
Guide to School Data
The Challenge Index measures participation in college-level tests, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, and a rating of 1.000 or above is in the top 5 percent of all American high schools. Public schools are required by law to administer state tests and report their percentage of students by race and percentage of low-income students; private schools are not.
Many private schools decline to release data such as average SAT scores because, they say, doing so will encourage ranking and ratings that obscure their strengths. Private schools were not asked their percentage of low-income students because they have no standard way of calculating that. In cases of private schools that have lower grade levels, too, the data here apply only to the high school portion of the school. In some cases, demographic data don't add up to 100 percent because not all races are included.
-- Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews covers education for The Post. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.